Categorising tea tasting notes
by Thomas Tomporowski
Professional tea tasters are in the business of deciding the good tea from the bad. Their distinguished palates are the ultimate judge of what teas end up in our cups, with the thought process behind the decision nearly always shrouded in mystery. There are a number of tea schools offering professional tea sommelier studies, allowing those wishing to advance their career in tea, to learn the skill of tea evaluation. But studying tea is more like learning woodwork, rather than accounting, and the only way to develop a trained palate is to simply drink a lot of tea.
School of tea
Studying tea will involve developing an ability to articulate the tea preferences. No two teas taste the same, but why do we choose tea A over tea B? At some point, you will need to pen down your thoughts, using known taste reference points to express your taste impressions. You will soon discover that these reference points can shift in line with even the smallest changes in tea brewing parameters. Comparing notes with fellow tea drinkers can bring the most unexpected results.
Tea tasting charts are useful
Using a reference chart can assist in the formulation of your tea impressions. With so many known tastes out there, it can take a lot of time to pin down a flavour lingering on the back of your tongue. It often feels that writing tasting notes is akin to taking part in a gameshow, with the clock ticking down to the moment the last remnants of your sip fade away. There may be no right answers, but there often are obvious answers. No wonder that most tea sommelier schools and courses use some form of a tea flavour guide as a reference.
The Flavour Wheel
The majority of the flavour guides will take the form of a wheel, for reasons not known to us. The wheel allows all flavours to be equal. Feeling particularly uninspired by this guide format, we set out to look at the tea flavours differently, and attempt to classify the factors that influence the tea’s journey from the fields into your cup. While this exercise has not identified any new tea flavours, or redefined the way one can train their palate, we adopted the new convention in our store and you will hopefully find it interesting.
The Tea Cube
The first version of the tea cube identifies 49 key flavours, which you will experience in the world of tea. You may think that this is a lot, but in the writing of the tasting notes for our teas we have often gone above and beyond the cube flavours; a testament to the wealth of the sensory experience available in loose leaf. The flavours are grouped into 7 categories, two of which have been combined for ease of navigation. The respective categories have been ordered left to right, broadly in line with their environmental hierarchy as follows:
- Elemental - the most ephemeral of all flavour categories, elemental combines the flavours of land and sea, without the sensory imprints of fauna and flora. Think rich mineral umami of volcanic rock, the elusive saltiness of ocean spray, or the warm peat aromas of rich soil.
- Vegetal - the vegetal category showcases the possible flavours of the flora kingdom, in the widest possible sense. A fragrant journey across summer meadows, lush pine forests, colourful gardens of fresh flowers, and the wholesome flavours of the vegetable patch.
- Nutty/ Spiced - our own marriage of disparate botanical kingdoms, this flavour category incorporates some of the most colourful and characteristic tea flavours. The comforting familiarity of hazelnut, the seducing sweet scent of cinnamon and the refreshing tang of menthol are just a few worthy mentions on this exotic itinerary
- Fruity - this flavour category is quite possibly flora at its sweetest. A tantalisingly wide range of fruit plants and trees are often deliberately farmed next to tea, with a hope of flavour inspiration. Whether it’s the juicy apple of an orchard or the fresh citrus of a lemon grove, the results can be immensely gratifying.
- Sweet/ Krafted - predominantly a category for those with something of a sweet tooth, it focuses on natural flavours that did not have any part to play in the tea’s journey, but which spring easily to mind when it comes to writing tasting notes. For a couple of delicious examples, imagine the comforting buzz of chocolate, or the delightful creaminess of fresh butter.
Tea flavours – closing thoughts
We hope that Tea Flavour Cube will become a useful reference point, for tea novices and seasoned tea drinkers alike. While this by no means covers the entire wealth of flavour available in loose leaf tea, perhaps someone out there will be inspired to take their tea hobby to a new level.